Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Navigating the Maze of Special Education Law and Practice with Students with ASD


Dan Stewart is Supervising Attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, Minneapolis.

When a dispute occurs over the educational programming and services for children with disabilities, there can be dramatic consequences for all involved. Disputes may draw upon limited time and energy, tax the emotional resources of parents and school staff alike, and damage the crucial family-school relationship that is necessary to developing and implementing school services for children with disabilities. There is growing evidence that children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families are disproportionately involved in disputes. For example, based on a review of available Minnesota Department of Education data, in 2005 students with ASD in Minnesota were involved in about 20% of all administrative special education complaints, but these students represented only around 6% of Minnesota’s total special education student population.

Given this context, it is vital for educators to have a good understanding of the basic educational rights of students with ASD and school legal responsibilities. This article highlights those basic rights, and also presents some tips and strategies that can assist school staff and parents to avoid and/or positively address disputes.

First, state and federal law outline the basic legal rights of students with disabilities. While the specific details of the laws are complex, educators can take an important step by understanding five main principles that form the legal underpinnings of special education law:

  • Free appropriate public education. School districts must ensure that a student’s education is meaningful and is designed to allow the student to progress.
  • Least restrictive environment. Students with disabilities must be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with their non-disabled peers.
  • Parent and student participation. Parents and students have the right to be involved and provide consent to many vital educational decisions.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP) team process. An IEP team that includes the parents, as well as the student if they wish to and can be involved, makes the educational decisions regarding the student. This is in stark contrast to the school making the decisions by itself.
  • Due process protections. There are a variety of notice and procedural provisions, as well as informal and formal protections, that allow parents and students to advocate for and enforce their legal rights.

Second, it’s important to understand that these principles are infused within the overall special education process, which can be broken down into five main areas: (1) “child find” (proposing to evaluate a child who may have special education needs); (2) formal evaluation; (3) development of an IEP; (4) implementation of the IEP; and (5) review, revision, and re-evaluation, which allows for continually monitoring and fine tuning. Other main areas that are important to understand are legal provisions concerning discipline, restraints and use of time-out rooms, and extended school year (ESY) services (ESY allows certain students to access services during longer curricular breaks).

Third, despite the best efforts of all involved, disputes can still occur. An awareness of common trouble-spots that others have faced can be an important tool to head-off at least some problems. There are a number of common legal disputes that occur in the following areas: not having comprehensive evaluations, having incomplete or inappropriate IEPs, not planning for or improperly using restraints or time-out rooms, not reviewing and revising IEPs when necessary, and failure to plan for or implement ESY services.

Finally, while knowledge of the main principles, overall special education process, and common legal issues may prevent some problems from occurring, it is crucial to recognize that many, if not most, special education disputes arise when school staff and parents have mismatched understandings, expectations, or beliefs, or when there is miscommunication or a lack of communication. Further, some parents associate a stigma with having a child with special education needs. These issues may be complicated when families and staff come from different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, speak different native languages, and have varying levels of support. Many problems in appropriately serving children with ASD are wrapped up in group dynamics of the IEP process. School staff can help prevent these problems by taking the following steps:

  • Understand the human dimension. Recognize that IEP team members have different perspectives on the student and have different experiences.
  • Create and use clear, evidence-based progress reports. Having a common and understandable measure of student progress helps to clarify where the student is succeeding and where there are problems.
  • Spend time in planning for thoughtful and productive IEP team meetings. Everyone is busy, and if there is a well-designed agenda for a meeting, there is a greater chance of effectiveness.
  • Prepare for problems. Discuss, before a problem occurs, how the IEP team should approach and address a problem. The strategy should have benchmarks towards resolution, other options to address the problem, and a clear timeline.
  • Seek out training opportunities for professional development. There are a growing number of options available for increasing skills related to group dynamics, team process, and positive dispute resolution – use them.
  • Keep the focus on the student’s needs. Sometimes, interpersonal conflicts impede the functioning of an IEP team. As much as possible, base decisions on comprehensive and appropriate evaluations, student needs, objective education data, and progress reports.

Overall, these suggestions are designed to identify, avoid, and positively address disputes that occur in the complex special education process. Don’t forget, however, to rely on your own judgment, experience, and common sense, and on other knowledgeable people, including parents, students, advocates, other staff, and legal professionals.